Document 96038

Japanese popular culture, typified by media such as the Manga and Anime
exported throughout the word, is often described as “very cute.” The Japanese themselves
recognize the abundance of kawaii (meaning cute in Japanese) things all around them;
most people intentionally consume or are unintentionally exposed to kawaii images on
television, in magazines and all about their everyday lives countless times per day. Yet
beyond its superficial use as a tool to support consumerism, kawaii works beneath the
surface as a social lubricant. Due to narrow constraints of socially acceptable forms of
self-expression imposed by Japan’s authoritarian political atmosphere, the Japanese use
cuteness to diminish the apparentness of and circumnavigate hierarchy in an inimitable
form of communication, self-definition, escapism, and psychological complacency. An
amalgamation of centuries of Japanese aesthetics into a modern form that people of all
social classes can appreciate, by proliferation of kawaii consumer-capitalism, often
criticized as the destroyer of culture, has instead played a part in its evolution.
Each morning navigating through the endless maze of the residential back streets
of Waseda San-Cho-me (3rd block) on my way to class at the Waseda University main
campus, passing a corner bakery I was greeted by the smiling face of “Prince Pickles.”
This is not an endearing moniker for the owner of the bakery, nor does it reference any of
the royalty of Japan. No, Prince Pickles, the adorable bug-eyed boy, his head the size of
his body, clad in shorts and a pilot’s helmet, is the face of the Japanese Self-Defense
Forces (JSDF). Each pass of his effigy left me dumbfounded as to why the Japanese
Ministry of Self-Defense deemed a dotty, if not endearing, pre-teen cartoon character to
be a suitable face for Japan’s National Defense. Does he not present a rather surreal
impression of what is essentially a military machine? The apparent inconsistency
between the childish temperament of the animated Pickles and the stern, serious nature of
the military organization he represents left an odd taste in my mouth. Yet, despite this
inconsistency, Pickles’ cute, cartoon face conveys some fundamental messages about the
workings of Japanese society.
Pickles is a representative of a massive cadre born of Japan’s cute phenomenon,
kawaii. Comprised of animated characters, national celebrities, fashion designs, animal
stars, pop-culture icons and more, the unifying theme of many entities of modern
Japanese popular culture is an endearing temperament of juvenile whimsy and endearing
cuteness. Although appreciation of cuteness is hardly unique to Japan (many adult
Americans enjoy SpongeBob, find the “huggably soft” bears that advertise Charmin toilet
paper appealing and giggle at the fuzzy hamsters that bob their heads to electronica while
cruising in their Kia Soul), the immense volume and multitude of fields in which cute
images are presented is a distinctively Japanese phenomenon. In Japan cute consumption
takes a step beyond simply a type of consumer preference or advertising strategy; it
serves as a critically foundational medium for communication between individuals and
society. I submit that due to the narrow constraints of socially acceptable forms of selfexpression imposed by Japan’s authoritarian, hierarchical political atmosphere, the
Japanese use cuteness to diminish the apparentness of and circumnavigate hierarchy in an
inimitable form of communication, self-definition, escapism, and psychological
complacency. First rationalizing the aesthetic of cuteness as a basic human value
significant to people of all cultures, I will analyze these unique functions of cute
aesthetics in specifically Japanese culture on both the societal level and the level of the
individual, including the significance its use in the popular media of Manga and Anime
and distortions of its use in pornography. First, let us look at the cute phenomenon a little
more closely.
The Cute Phenomenon
Popular fads, as they are, naturally come in and out of vogue. Yet, in the late
1970’s Japan was gripped by the cute-craze kawaii, a trend that has since burrowed itself
in with what seems to be a permanent staying power. Kawaii is an adjective commonly
translated into English as “cute1.” However, as often is the case with the words, ideas and
values of other cultures, “cute” falls short of capturing the true essence of kawaii. Its
etymological predecessor, kawayushi, illuminates the meaning of kawaii more clearly.
Defined by Shogakkan’s 1993 Dictionary of Classical Japanese as “pathetic and
unbearable to look at, pitiful, poor,” kawayushi seems to have little to do with cuteness.
For simplicity sake I use the terms kawaii and cute interchangeably. I also often use
kawaii as a noun to support its relevance as a concept rather than merely a descriptor.
Realize, however, the hegemonic relationship implied when one considers something to
be cute. Cuteness is typically associated with weakness, defenselessness, and being in
need of the care of others. These attributes of cuteness evoke in viewers a desire to
protect, nurture and cuddle cute objects. While Kawayushi embodies the negative aspects
of cuteness (its weak and defenseless nature), somewhere in its linguistic transition to
kawaii these negative aspects have been de-emphasized. Modern kawaii focuses upon
and celebrates this weakness in its pure, good, naive nature. As such, the word is used to
describe babies and children, animals stuffed and real (so long as they are adorable),
cartoons and balloons, anything even slightly representing a sense of child-like whimsy.
During the late 1970’s and 1980’s, propagated by Japan’s then booming capitalist
machine, kawaii took the archipelago by storm. This was the period in which Sanrio took
one small step for consumerism and one giant leap for itself with its Hello Kitty and other
cute icon franchises. Clothes, stationary, newspapers, credit cards, interior decoration,
toilets, toasters: cuteness spread throughout every conceivable market of consumer
goods. Kinsella (1995) provides a report of some of the various kitschy-cute oddities that
emerged: police boxes in the form of gingerbread houses, Pokemon-esque corporate bank
logos, pink road diggers, gambling machines entitled My Poochy and Fairies, cute
pornography. Moreover, in contrast to its emblematic association with women and
femininity, Japanese cuteness spanned gender gaps; though unarguably it is more popular
with women, it is neither uncommon nor thought odd for a man to sport cute character
accessories on his cell phone, wear cute clothes, or enjoy cute-centric media.
When presented with the sheer volume of cute images and the striking incongruity
of the image and the product/reality the image represents, many cannot grasp the place of
cuteness in Japanese society beyond simply considering it an odd eccentricity. In order to
understand the place of kawaii in Japan at a deeper level, let us first take a look at
cuteness as a human value.
Cute Science
Few concepts of cultural value transcend borders and come closer to being a part
of nationally-disassociated human culture than does cuteness. Certainly one would not be
hard pressed to find exceptions, individuals who view indulgence in the aesthetic
appreciation of infantile characteristics to be beneath them. But no one can refute the
stronghold cuteness has upon the vast majority of humans. An indolent, fuzzy panda bear,
a playful button-nosed dear, a box full of kittens so sleepy they can barely lift their heads
to take notice of cooing onlookers: these are the big-hitter centerpieces that make up
countless fairy tales, set up solid foundations for the animation giants Disney, Pixar, and
DreamWorks, and capture the hearts and attentions of people irrespective of their
national/racial identity. But what makes something cute? Why is it exactly that a seal is
cute but a snake is not? Why are kittens and puppies more adorable than cats and dogs?
What makes the giant panda bear so endearing, and what makes a fat little baby panda
bear even more so? Ethologist Konrad Lorenz provides possible answers.
Scientifically speaking, cuteness in human babies is characterized by their
infantile features, such as small size, high concentrations of fatty and skin tissue, a
disproportionately large head or eyes, and infantile actions, such as wavering movements,
unbalanced walking, and slurred, incomprehensible “baby sounds.” Some of these
features serve as useful indications as to our offspring’s health; bigger heads are
necessary to properly house the developing infant brain, higher concentrations of fat cells
and extra skin are necessary for proper growth, help keep children warm and pad them
during inevitable baby-object collisions, large eyes centered forward and lower on the
face (making the head appear larger) help infants visually focus upon objects in front of
them. Lorenz (1970: 154) proposed that these cute features, even when viewed in nonhuman animals that by physiological coincidence share characteristics of human infants,
elicit in people images and thoughts of our own young, thus triggering innate instincts of
From the Darwinian perspective this is quite logical. In comparison to other
animals, human offspring have a considerably long period of development in which they
are completely dependant upon their parents for survival. Over thousands of years of
evolution, the protective response to the cute stimuli of babies became hardwired into our
psychology; the bigger the head or fatter the body (i.e. the healthier the infant) the
stronger the protective response becomes. In modern times, where the need to protect
children from predators or other imminent danger is drastically reduced, this response has
taken on the form of cuddling, hugging, and cooing over young (Angier, 2006).
Lorenz described this protective response as an “Innate Releasing Mechanism”
(IRM). Based on his research he proposed this IRM to be so sensitive that it can be
triggered by anything even remotely resembling a human baby (Genosko, 2005). Even
more intriguing, studies on the biochemical response to various stimuli show that viewing
cute things, sexual arousal, enjoying one’s favorite food, and psychoactive drugs all
stimulate the same pleasure inducing areas of the brain (Genosko, 2005). It thus seems
quite natural that humans have a positive disposition towards round and fuzzy little
creatures and anything close to their likeness.
However, in some cases this disposition borders on the morbid. Author Daniel
Harris (2000: 3) argues that as a consumer aesthetic cuteness “is closely linked with the
grotesque, the malformed.” He cites Baby Face and Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, which he
describes as “anatomical disasters,” as evidence: with “painfully swollen” limbs, digits
that are “useless pink stumps lopped off at the knuckles,” and red-apple cheeks inflated to
a degree that the width of the doll’s face exceeds its length. Such dolls represent a
macabre version of anatomical reality; to run across such a creature in real life would
undoubtedly induce a jolt of revulsion towards its un-humanness. Where did our
temperament for cute take a turn through the shop of horrors?
The answer is quite simple, elucidated best by parallels seen in modern concepts
of beauty. The supermodels and bikini-girls that plentifully adorn American popular
media are the center of much criticism about the creation of false images of female
beauty. Graced to less than 1% of all women, the “supermodel body-type” is hardly
representative of the average female. Advances in plastic surgery add to this
misrepresentation; many of these women are quite literally sculpted to an unnatural level
of perfection. For the average woman, attaining a body/face akin to those of women on
TV and in magazines is a virtually impossible dream. But then, if we assume that the
average male mates with the average female it would seem logical that the sexual
characteristics of this average female be employed in media to catch the attention of this
average male. Why is it the extreme, the unnatural female, that occupies the media
Similar to IRM, sex and characteristics of sexuality also have a triggering
mechanism, which is based on the Golden Ratio 2 . Scientists have shown that subtle
indicators related to the mind’s interpretation of this ratio provide clues about people’s
genetic vitality (Andreae, 2009). People whose body and face fit this ratio have stronger
genes and are actually genetically healthier than those who do not. For example, the ratio
of the size of a woman’s hips to her waist is a key indicator of not only her femininity,
but also her genetic health and her fertility. Using a computer to generate different female
body types, men and women alike rated females whose hip-waist ratio fit the Golden
Ratio as being more attractive than those who fell short (Andreae, 2009). Interestingly
enough, body types that exceeded the ratio into the realm of anatomical impossibility
were actually rated as the most attractive. Despite the impossible thinness of their waist,
these body types triggered the sexual mechanisms in viewers’ brains most strongly.
I say all this to suggest that IRM, sexual mechanisms, and other such indicators of
vitality that have evolved along with the human brain lack defined upper thresholds.
Thus, the exacerbation of sexual, IRM, and other such stimuli, despite the impossibility
of such traits occurring in the real world, elicit greater arousals within our brain. Seeing
the extent to which our perceptions of beauty-attractiveness have extended into the realm
of the surreal, it is unsurprising that standards of cute-attractiveness have followed suit.
In this light, it is easy to see how cuteness is inextricably interwoven with and
touches base at the very heart of our humanity. It contains a quiet yet compelling power,
stimulating our senses in an almost Pavlovian way; fluffy bunnies and dancing teddy
The Golden Ratio is a ratio of two quantities such that the ratio between the sum of
those quantities and the larger one is the same as the ratio between the larger one and the
smaller. Geometric shapes created by this ratio are found throughout the natural and
artistic world; it is considered to be a foundational principle of beauty.
bears are our bells, cuddling and cooing our drooling response. Given the important
influence cuteness holds, the fact that the Japanese have selected it as the basis around
which to form an autonomous branch of aesthetic value does not seem so eccentric. Yet,
the question still remains as to why specifically cuteness, kawaii, has come to hold the
prominent place it does in Japan.
Cuteness in Japanese Society
As a form of aesthetic value, cuteness is by no means new to Japan. Though it
came to the forefront of the pop culture scene during Japan’s booming 1980’s, its roots
can be seen as far back as the eleventh century.
In 1002, Sei Shōnagon, acclaimed Waka poet, author and court lady of then
Empress Sadako, compiled a collection of her personal essays and musings upon various
subjects into a book, Makura no Sōshi (The Pillow Book). Yomota (2006) points to line
146 as historical evidence of what he describes as “the Japanese affinity for small, kawaii
things.” Shōnagon having written Makura no Sōshi in archaic Japanese, Yomota provides
a modern Japanese translation; here I provide an English translation of Yomota’s modern
Japanese translation:
Kawaii things: The face of a child nipping away at a melon. When called
with a “chirp, chirp,” a little sparrow chick hopping my way. Upon
catching the chick and binding it with string, the mother sparrow coming
to give her little chick some grubs. A child of around three years old, when
seeing some strange object lying on the ground, suddenly running over,
picking it up in his tiny hands and bringing it to show an adult. A young
girl with her neat hair cut sleek and trim, when trying to see something,
sweeping the hair out of her eyes and throwing back her forehead.
The objects Shōnagon describes and the words she uses to describe them display an
unmistakable appreciation for small, infantile, cute (i.e. kawaii) things almost 1000 years
before kawaii became the pop-culture word-of-the-day. Considering Shōnagon’s elite
status as a court lady of the Empress and fame as an author and Waka poet, it is not
unreasonable to presume that other ladies of the court and members of the aristocracy
shared her affinity for kawaii. This is the first clear benchmark in which cuteness is
described as a form of aesthetic appreciation.
Yomota (2006) continues to cite authors such as Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) as
further evidence that kawaii aesthetics are not just a product of consumer capitalism. By
works such as Joseito (The Female Student), Shayō (The Setting Sun), and Hifu to Kokoro
(Skin and Soul), some credit Dazai as the originator of a sizable genre of post-war
literature, the shōjo (young girl) monologue3. A number of pre and post war authors have
achieved great fame in this genre, including Juran Hisao, author of Daikon (Radishes),
Osamu Hashimoto, author of Momo Shiri Musume (Peach Hip Girl), and Otarō Maijo,
author of Ashura Gāru (Asura Girl).
From these archaic, pre-war and post-war literary works we can clearly see that
cuteness has been considered a form of aesthetic beauty in Japanese society long before
kawaii products took over the mainstream and began being exported abroad. Thus, it is
not that Hello Kittty, Pokemon, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, or any other such
agents of Japanese cute-culture are inspirers of the cute craze, but rather that they are
manifestations of an already widely appreciated form of aesthetics. Nonetheless, why was
it specifically “cuteness” and not “sexiness” or “beauty” or “strength” or any other form
of artistic appreciation that caught on with the populous and became so deeply ingrained
in modern Japanese society?
A style of writing told from the viewpoint of a young girl and in which kawaii is
typically a central theme.
As a consumer ideal, kawaii entered the Japanese pop-culture scene in the late
1970’s. However, the exact source of the initial popularization that triggered the ensuing
“kawaii boom” (the mass of cute, kitsch good that flooded the market in the 1980’s) is
debated. Kinsella (1995) points to two fads among teenage girls, maru moji (meaning
“round script”), a highly stylized form of handwriting, and burikko (meaning “fakechild”), a term used to refer to a teenager or an adult who acts like a child. These started
to become popular during the late 1970’s and 1980’s, a time in which Japan realized
unprecedented economic growth and saw the development of a newly affluent middle
class. Kinsella (1995) argues that these fads, spurred by one of the largest consumer
demographics, teenage girls, incited companies to make their products cuter so as to
better tap into this dynamic market. This opened the door to cute performers like Sonoko
Kawai and Seiko Matsuda (singers better known for being ultra-cute than their artistic
talent), cute fashions, cute magazines, and beyond.
While trends and fads frequently drift in and out of the spotlight of public
appreciation, the kawaii craze stood out from the rest. Firstly, it had what one could call
grassroots beginnings. According to Kinsella (1995: 224), kawaii was different from
other teenage trends because:
[it] did not start in the multi-media which are frequently criticized for originating
all the trends of youth culture…Rather, it began as an underground literary trend
amongst young people who developed the habit of writing stylized childish
Secondly, it represented a form of self-expression entirely dissociated from political or
any other motivations. Yomota (2006: 14) points out when speaking of the kawaii fashion
of teens in Shibuya and Harajuku, two fashion hot spots in Tokyo, “unlike the punks and
mods of London, the street fashion of these youth does not impart even the slightest hint
of a politically motivated counter-culture. They choose this dress simply because it is
kawaii.” Thirdly, kawaii penetrated Japanese society with the utmost thoroughness;
though it has its critics, kawaii is received, accepted, and appreciated by people of all
generations and all walks of life. Yet, for all its popularity with the general public, the
kawaii phenomenon is especially intriguing due to its lack of traditional Japanese
aesthetic. This disassociation with traditional Japan is both a product of kawaii’s
grassroots beginning and non-politicization and a catalyst for its popular appeal. It is a
key factor in the utilization of cuteness as a form of social communication. As image,
kawaii is used to put an agreeable face on potentially disagreeable institutions.
Cuteness as Image
People of all the world’s consumer-capitalist societies in one form or another
indulge themselves in image consumption. Television, movies, books, stuffed animals,
pornography, corporate characters: all create images of what we know, believe, or desire
reality to be. In the case of Japan, images, particularly kawaii images, are explicitly used
as a buffer between the general public and domineering political and corporate
This is why, as Kinsella (1995) points out, one of the most critical features of
kawaii is its disassociation with traditional Japanese culture, instead being associated
with foreignness. According to her extensive back-story, Kitty-chan (as Hello Kitty is
affectionately referred to in Japan, the suffix –chan a warm display of fondness) hails
from England. Ultraman (a popular superhero) and most other Japanese superheroes and
sci-fi characters come from the depths of space, magical forests, mysterious lost
continents, but rarely if ever from Japan. The cuts and lace of kawaii style clothes have a
distinctly European or American style and are often advertised as such. Why this
foreignness is so critical is due to one of its key functions as a form of social
communication: to soften the image of the traditional Japanese authoritative state under
which individuals experience intense pressure to conform to the system. McVeigh (2000:
138) illustrates these pressures:
[Japan] is a society in which the powerful bureaucratizing forces of statism and
corporate culture are difficult to ignore. Thus, one is socialized to be constantly
aware of the many obligations one has accrued, in which a strictly regulated,
controlled and highly competitive educational system decides one’s fate to a
remarkable degree; where passing through life is a continuous series of exam
preparations, exams, and more exams; where karōshi (death from overwork) is
reported on the rise; and where the most insignificant social interaction can
quickly escalate into a carefully choreographed ritual.
To lighten the burden placed on individuals to conform to social norms the Japanese
government and corporate Japan typically operate under the guise of kawaii images.
Prince Pickles represents the JSDF. Prefectures have their own prefectural character as
American states have their own state bird or tree. “No parking,” “clean up after your
dog,” and other such reminders to individuals to follow the rules are written in bubbly
scripts and adorned with animal cartoons. Banks, insurance agencies, realtors, and all
other business institutions with a palpable air of seriousness about them often resort to the
use of cute character logos and insignias.
Leaders of these institutions, representing the backbone and in many ways the
most rigid and dominating faces of Japan, realize the daunting shadow they cast over the
general public. By adorning masks of kawaii, these entities can communicate with the
public free of their authoritarian aura; whatever qualms and reservations one might bear
towards a faceless corporation/controlling government suddenly melt away when a plump
little animal replaces the facelessness. By means of image softening, kawaii images serve
as a key lubricant of social communication. However, more important than simply the
use of kawaii is the patterns of its use; the overwhelming majority of kawaii images are
drawings, cartoons and characters, rather than images of reality.
Let me return for a moment to the case of Prince Pickles and the Japanese Self
Defense Forces; here is a perfect example of the break between image and reality via the
application of kawaii. Contrast the Pickles campaign with American military
advertisements: Marines traverse a foggy battlefield at full speed in the morning light,
training in full gear with obvious pain, yet an intense dedication written all over their
faces, climaxing in an intimidating cadre of soldiers brandishing flaming rapiers towards
an endless sky. Though exaggeratedly romanticized, this final image hits home because it
bestows a gripping feel of reality on America’s military presence; the face on the screen
staring back at viewers is that of a real person. Here, the clash between Pickles and the
American Marine is obvious; Pickles is a cartoon, and in that he is a cartoon what he
says, what he does and what he represents feels distanced from reality. This is not to say
Pickles is unsuitable, for it is precisely this effect, to distract from, dissuade, and deter
any claims to the actual might of the JSDF, that makes Pickles perfect.
Japan is forbidden to hold a standing military by Article 9 of the constitution
imposed by the Allied Powers at the close of WWII. Only a small defensive force, the
JSDF, was permitted for the purpose of protecting Japan from foreign attack. Yet over the
years, due to various external and internal pressures, the JSDF has been built up into a
formidable military presence. In other words, despite its forbiddance Japan is armed to
the teeth. As official policies and actions have been pacifistic, the issue of the legality of
the JSDF has been somewhat overlooked. However, with the Iraq war and increased
tensions in the Middle East, Japan has had much pressure from America to take a more
active role militarily, bringing Article 9 and the legality of the JSDF back into the arena
of political debate in Asia. Here is where Pickles serves his purpose.
The non-reality of cartoon images like Pickles bestows a feeling of non-reality
upon what they represent. Any contest to the legitimacy of Japan’s military is deflected
by its non-threatening, unreal image. A quote by Japan’s Prime Minister, Taro Aso, in
2007 captures the idea best, “The more positive images pop into a person's mind, the
easier it becomes for Japan to get its views across” (Tabuchi: 2007). As public discourse
begins to stir on such politically sensitive issues, politicians customarily use kawaii
characters, “to win [people’s] hearts and minds and to soften the image of authority”
(Tabuchi: 2007). Just as public entities use cuteness to soften their image when
communicating with the public, the producers and creators of Manga and Anime use it in
a similar way.
Manga and Anime – Embodiments of Kawaii
When indulging in animated images of kawaii, viewers distance themselves from
the reality of situations. Manga (comic books) and Anime (animated TV shows and
movies), two forms of popular media saturated with kawaii, provide examples of this
“escapist” consumption. Kinsella (1998) argues that these forms of entertainment provide
a form of escapism to despondent youth disenchanted with the pressures of the education
and employment system. This escapism is made possible by the sense of non-reality
produced by these forms of media. Often dealing with science fiction or fantasy related
plotlines, readers plunge themselves into a temporary fantasy world in which the
pressures and obligations of the real world are rendered null. Even when plotlines center
upon the everyday (i.e. current events, high school life, work life, the lives of
housewives), that these media are animated rather than written literature or live action
movies helps readers more fully dissociate what is on the page or screen from reality.
Image acts as a screen, allowing readers/viewers to enter their imagination and run wild,
free of the psychologically draining reality of social obligation and expectation. Yet
interestingly enough, while consumers use Manga and Anime to escape from the real
world, producers create loopholes back into it. It is precisely because of the non-reality of
animation that producers are free to express opinions and ideas that would otherwise be
considered taboo.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988) tells the story of the struggle for survival and
eventual death by starvation of two orphaned youths in post war Japan. The film is a
heart-rending anti-war picture that can be interpreted as harshly critical of the
government and the society that become involved in such a desolate war. Akira (1988)
depicts a post World War III mega-city, assumed to be Tokyo, overrun with gangs and
violence and ruled by a totalitarian government. It critically alludes to the gap in values
between generations, the controlling nature of government and other significant issues
occurring in Japan at the time. One might expect these films to stir unsettling emotions
and incite heated debate; due to a strong ethnocentric and nationalistic sentiment, outright
criticism is not well taken in Japan. Boisterous social and political critics, whether their
points are valid are not, are often seen as dissident troublemakers. Yet through the use of
animation, essentially a thin veil of kawaii, directors are able to present their criticisms
without rousing public discontent. Viewers are free to appreciate, interpret, and take
away what they will from the films without feeling that Japan or their own “Japaneseness” has been threatened.
Whether it be government communicating with society, society with individuals,
or individuals with government and society, kawaii is an essential buffer through which
somewhat discomforting demands, expectations and criticisms can be acceptably passed.
The distancing nature of kawaii, in softening these interactions, is a critical form of social
lubrication within Japanese society. However, to individuals specifically, kawaii serves
supplementary functions as a medium through which to create self-identify and attain
otherwise unattainable psychological complacency.
Cuteness and the Individual
Beyond the relationship between public entities and individuals tied by the bond
of cuteness, it seems that many Japanese people meld these images of cuteness into the
fabric of their own worldview. By the dichotomitic power relationship implied by the
weak and submissive nature of kawaii, many individuals blend kawaii into their own selfidentity, thereby creating their own psychological space in which the hierarchical system
of greater society holds no sway.
McVeigh (2000: 141-142) discusses the positional meaning of cuteness, its
significance in relation to other concepts, and interprets the various concepts surrounding
cuteness by use of the power/powerless dichotomy. If cute objects assume a position of
weakness, defenselessness, and a need for protection, the consumer of cuteness naturally
fulfills the opposite position, that of strength, defender, and protector. Through
consumption of kawaii images individuals involve themselves in a two-tier hierarchy in
which they are dominant. In, as McVeigh (2000: 138) describes it, a society where “one
is socialized to be constantly aware of the many obligations one has accrued,” this kind of
simple relationship, entirely devoid of obligation or responsibility, can serve as a useful
psychological base around which one can construct and reinforce one’s own self-image.
Consider for instance what Nobuhiro (1998) describes as the cult of Oguricap. In
1970’s Japan the sport of horseracing was deemed a contemptible form of entertainment,
scorned by the public eye, something only for Yakuza (gangsters) and other malefactors.
However, by the 1980’s all had changed; it had gained much popularity with youth and
attained a surprisingly sizable fan base of women. Nobuhiro (1998) attributes this sudden
somersault in public opinion to a special horse named Oguricap and his likeness, a
lovable, huggable nuigurumi (stuffed animal).
Oguricap was a horse with a dramatic career filled with ups, downs, huge wins,
disappointing losses, underestimation, grudge matches and more fanfare than any
racehorse ever to come out of Japan. In fact, Seabiscuit (the champion thoroughbred
immortalized in both film and literature) comes to mind as a particularly apt comparison;
just as Seabiscuit served as a symbol of hope to Americans coming out of the Great
Depression, Oguricap served as a similar symbol of inspiration and encouragement to
young Japanese women.
As small numbers of women were drawn to racetracks to see “The Gray Monster”
(Oguricap’s moniker), eventually extra-soft plush Oguricap stuffed animals began to
appear in stores. These caught the eyes of larger numbers of women, further increasing
the size of his fan base. The cult of Oguricap grew to such an extent that even a serialized
Manga was created documenting dramatized versions of his races. Unsurprisingly, the
main character is a young woman who, despite sound advice from her equestrian-guru
friend, unfailingly places her bet on Oguricap.
Through his interviews with Shun Komaki and Naoko Takahashi, two women
who have written extensively on horseracing in Japan, Nobuhiro (1998: 174-175)
presents the case that Oguricap’s popularity with women is due to a psychological bond
women created through their Oguricap stuffed animals. According to Komaki the women
in the cult of Oguricap “…had a desire to belong to something and Oguricap…offered
them an identity.” By playing with, “training,” and kawaigaru4-ing their stuffed animals,
women would develop a psychological bond with the real Oguricap; this special
relationship would give a woman a sense of identity, “…thus confirming that she was
different from other women. Takahashi provides similar remarks:
Each woman who loved Oguricap felt that he was her own possession…having
established empathy with him, she could talk about many things in relation to
him…In regard to the nuigurumi, it produced a sense of closeness and could be
given trust as it could never betray its owner.
To Young women, for whom societal expectations are sometimes the most demanding
(i.e. giving up work for marriage and childrearing), kawaigaru-ing Oguricap gave a sense
of power, control and individuality that they lacked in other areas of their lives.
The account of a dolphin in Tokyo’s Aqua Stadium (an attraction affiliated with
the Shinagawa Prince Hotel) demonstrates a similar function of kawaii. The claim to
fame of the stadium’s most popular dolphin, Lucky, oddly is not due to his stunning
displays of aqua-aerial acrobatics, but rather the lack thereof; to put it simply, Lucky is
the only dolphin that cannot jump. Yet Lucky continues to draw crowds despite, or rather
The verb form of kawaii. To kawaigaru something is to treat it like a child, to think of it
as kawaii.
because, of his lack of ability. Tsuno (2007) puts forth that, “[Lucky] may be considered
a loser as a performer but is still trying hard, striking the hearts of many Japanese
frustrated over what they see as an increasingly unequal society.” Many Japanese youth
feel increasingly constrained by the pressures of competition and social expectation.
Stressed by the lack of control they feel, they turn to Lucky as a model of “the undying
spirit.” No matter how many times he fails Lucky still tries. According to Waseda
University psychology professor Taizo Kato, supporters embrace Lucky as “…a
symbolic figure of inferiority. They [youth] sympathize with losers and by adoring
Lucky, they're cheering for themselves” (Tsuno, 2007).
Gambaru (to try one’s best) is another widespread concept in Japan, supporting
the idea that one should put aside notions of competition and instead focus solely on
doing the best possible job one can do. Kawaii provides both means to support the
gambaru concept and means by which youth can reaffirm their identity amid a
domineeringly authoritarian atmosphere. By kawaigaru-ing and supporting eternal losers
like Lucky, youth find an outlet to deal with their own losses. By following Lucky’s
example and simply trying their best, youth who feel suffocated by the rat-race are
reminded that it is not their success or failure that defines them, but rather their
determination and willpower.
These examples are testaments to the creativity of the human psyche’s ability to
sustain itself in untenable circumstances. Amid the psychological strain of the
authoritarian political atmosphere and, as McVeigh (2000: 138) describes it, the accrued
obligations of which one is socialized to constantly be aware, people create their own
islands of solace to which they can retreat for psychological respite and reaffirmation of
their individual identity. In Japan, kawaii is the medium through which this process is
conducted. But what happens when kawaii is detached from its original good nature?
Does distorting the pureness of kawaii through its depiction in impure images alter the
functions it has come to serve?
Distortions of Cuteness
Given its prolific use in mass culture and media, there is little surprise that kawaii
has come to be used in distorted ways as well. In particular, I will focus on its use in
sexually explicit content (SEC).
From an American viewpoint Japan has a surprising amount of SEC. This is not
to say that it is ubiquitous, but simply that it exists on a noticeable periphery and is
treated with a far higher degree of frankness than in the United States. In all major
convenience stores pornographic magazines are placed alongside Fashion, Women’s and
Tech magazines, sometimes without any plastic covering. Even non-pornographic
magazines are no strangers to sexual content. Diamond and Uchiyama (1999) report that
the Shukan Post (a weekly magazine comparable to “People” in the U.S.) became the best
selling magazine in Japan in 1993 due to inclusion of photos of glimpses of pubic hair,
features of nude girls and articles about sex. Beyond the sheer mass of SEC available is
its fetishistic and violent nature. “The [SEC] produced caters to every taste and fetish and
is typically much more aggressive and violent than that seen in the United States,” report
Diamond and Uchiyama (1999). This fetishism and violence is particularly apparent in
the mass of SEC that has become entwined with kawaii depicting cute, young (high
school age) girls, referred to as Lolitas5.
The Lolita is a widely used character within Japanese pornography. Even mature
women are portrayed with Lolita-like juvenile characteristics and act younger and more
sexually inexperienced than they likely are. On occasion the presentation of Lolitas even
delves into immoral and illegal territory; some photo books and magazines contain
images of underage models as young as eight years old according to Sparrow (2008).
While recent years have seen stricter enforcement of laws against the sexual depiction of
minors, the depiction of Lolitas in Manga remains entirely legal. Though of course
animated pornography is hardly unique to Japan, the degree to which it is printed and
consumed is distinctive. Sparrow (2008) estimates that, “…30-40% of Manga contains
sexual themes or content, much of it representing schoolgirls of elementary or junior high
school age, sometimes even including themes of rape, sado-masochism and bondage.”
Why exactly kawaii has become interwoven with sex and sexuality is complex
and likely due to many subtle factors. Nonetheless, kawaii’s previously discussed
power/powerless dichotomy certainly has had a significant influence. According to
Kipnis (1992), who has focused her research upon the psychology of pornography
consumption, pornography is less about the masturbatory act of sexual satisfaction than it
is about a display of male dominance and power over women. This theory may be
especially relevant in Japan, which has been traditionally known as one of the world’s
most controlling patriarchies. Given the violent, controlling nature of the depictions that
Lolita refers to a cute, sexually precocious teenager. Lolita pornography refers to
pornography depicting models that either are underage or are made to look so by dressing
them in high school uniforms or adorning them with kawaii paraphernalia.
typify Lolita pornography, it is clear how kawaii serves as a recreation of this power
relationship. The naive innocence that at first defined kawaii as a positive image in
people’s minds is here distorted to reinforce male dominance.
It is also conceivable that the escapist elements contained in the rendering of
kawaii images could serve a purpose. As Sato (1981) points out, pornography, “do[es]
not have a legitimate place in society, and its consumers are made to feel guilty.”
However, the non-reality of animation in erotic Manga can serve as a partition in the
mind of the reader between the act of consumption and the guilt induced by the selfconsciousness of societal disapproval. This is the argument put forth by Allison (1996),
who describes erotic Manga as:
…[a] space where Japanese move from one place to another, temporarily
disconnected and released from the contexts and relations that bind them so
tightly everywhere else. In a society where one’s group and ranking determine not
only how one should behave but also the identity one is given (at home a man is a
husband and father, for example; at work he is X position of Y division in Z
company), being outside these groups means one is not bound by their rules and
no longer identified by their frames. “He” becomes no one, a social anonymity
disengaged from his placements within the spheres and relationships that socially
matter. And assuming a mask, as it were, is the stance adopted by not only
commuter-consumers but also manga males in order to pursue their form of play
and sex.
If it is true that rendering pornography with kawaii elements serves this “separating from
reality” function, then the consumption of such pornography serves as an effective outlet
for sexual desire.
In an intensive study conducted on sexual violence and pornography in Japan,
Diamond and Uchiyama (1999) provide intriguing evidence that supports this idea. The
following is a summary of an outline they provide of the history of pornography in postwar Japan:
After WWII, the occupying Allied forces imposed Puritan standards of sexuality
on Japan, severely restricting the production of sexually explicit materials. Such
materials became and remained scarce through the 1970’s. Gradually the
government and the general public returned to a more indifferent view of the
erotic, and the late 1980’s-1990’s saw a rapid expansion of production of
Diamond and Uchiyama (1999) hypothesized that the rapid expansion in SEC would be
positively correlated with violent sexual crimes. Conversely, their data showed just the
opposite. Over this time period rape victims decreased by 68% and rape offenders
decreased by 79%. In fact, when compared to similar studies conducted in Europe and
America, Japan was found to have the most dramatic decrease in sexual crimes as the
amount and availability of SEC increased.
This study provides evidence that pornography serves as a channel through which
men can satisfy sexual urges without manifesting them in violent ways. Though Diamond
and Uchiyama’s study included all types of SEC, they do make a point of mentioning that
much of the increased production was in erotic Manga and other animated pornography.
Even when distorted, kawaii retains its primary functions as a tool of
communication, escapism and psychological complacency. Reinforcing their sense of
male dominance by consuming kawaii pornography, men reaffirm their masculinity and
thus are provided with a non-violent outlet for what might otherwise have developed into
violent sexual urges.
Kawaii as Aesthetic
Its applicability to a wide variety of fields (fashion, art, business) and its coming
about during the height of the Japanese consumer revolution were certainly key
ingredients in the proliferation of kawaii, but what accounts for its staying power? To
answer this question, let us consider cuteness as a form of aesthetics in comparison with
beauty aesthetics.
In many ways cuteness is a counterpart of beauty. Beauty is rare, unbridled,
unattainable, distant, to be looked up to in awe. Cuteness, on the other hand, is common,
controllable, easily attainable, close, to be looked down on with loving fondness. Angier
(2006) describes it well by saying “Beauty attracts admiration and demands a
pedestal…is despoiled by a single pimple” whereas “cuteness attracts affection and
demands a lap…is content on occasion to co-segregate with homeliness.”
Cuteness lacks the visually outstanding characteristics possessed by beauty.
However this quality seems to be common to many eras of Japanese aesthetics. Yomota
(2006: 18) provides a summarized account of the evolution of Japanese aesthetic
In the eleventh century, Japan's aristocracy preached mono no aware, a sensitivity
towards ephemera and an appreciation of the transience of all things. Poets of the
thirteenth century ventured to create a word for layering one's emotion in
expression while avoiding being explicit, yūgen, which translates loosely to
"ethereal profoundness." Tea ceremony masters of the sixteenth century abstained
from using vivid colors, embraced coincidence and irregularity and, in
supplementing the absence of luxury with imagination, realized wabi, a frame of
mind in which spiritual richness can be found in the simple and tranquil.
Kawaii contains elements of all these values. Mono no aware appreciates the existence
and transience of all things from the breathtakingly large redwood to the insignificant
blade of grass, much as the expression of kawaii does not require any particular medium:
animal, human, big, small, pretty, homely, skinny, fat (just so long as there is a dash of
cuteness). Yūgen taught poets to layer their emotion with expression, thus avoiding being
overt, whereas kawaii teaches its users to layer themselves in cuteness so as to avoid the
visually outstanding characteristics of beauty. Wabi promotes finding spiritual richness
through simplicity over luxury, while kawaii is an embodiment of the everyday simplicity
that opposes beauty. Kawaii can thus be viewed as the amalgamation of centuries of
artistic appreciation into a form to which people of all social classes can relate. In this
sense, the consumer capitalist machine, often criticized as the destroyer of culture, has
instead played a part in its evolution.
As a famous and telling Japanese expression goes, “the nail that sticks out gets
hammered down”, in Japan, consent to the system has been a pervasive social construct.
Intense beauty placed upon a pillar is consequently alienating, further solidifying
hierarchical sentiments. Cuteness, however, is a form of aesthetics to which everyone can
relate and which everyone can appreciate in their own way. It serves to flatten, rather
than solidify, these hierarchical sentiments. In cuteness, people can express their
individuality without the disaffection of beauty.
Kawaii is more than its diplomats (Kitty-chan, Pikachu, Sailor Moon, etc.) who
epitomize the global perspective on Japanese popular culture. Beneath the surface of its
superficial use as a tool of consumerist-capitalism, kawaii acts as an omnipresent social
lubricant. It is a form of expression which allows the Japanese individual, if only in a
small way, to live outside the demanding nature of social pressures in a non-combative,
socially acceptable manner.
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